Wednesday, September 7, 2016


I first saw Kevin Sands at BEA 2015, when THE BLACKTHORN KEY came out. I then saw him on a panel at this year's Bay Area Book Festival, and found out the sequel, MARK OF THE PLAGUE, was due out in September. It came out yesterday, and I've already ordered a copy. Have a look:

“Tell no one what I’ve given you.”

Until he got that cryptic warning, Christopher Rowe was happy, learning how to solve complex codes and puzzles and creating powerful medicines, potions, and weapons as an apprentice to Master Benedict Blackthorn—with maybe an explosion or two along the way.

But when a mysterious cult begins to prey on London’s apothecaries, the trail of murders grows closer and closer to Blackthorn’s shop. With time running out, Christopher must use every skill he’s learned to discover the key to a terrible secret with the power to tear the world apart.

The Black Death has returned to London, spreading disease and fear through town. A mysterious prophet predicts the city’s ultimate doom—until an unknown apothecary arrives with a cure that actually works. Christopher’s Blackthorn shop is chosen to prepare the remedy. But when an assassin threatens the apothecary’s life, Christopher and his faithful friend Tom are back to hunting down the truth, risking their lives to untangle the heart of a dark conspiracy.

And as the sickness strikes close to home, the stakes are higher than ever before…

According to your website, you have degrees in theoretical physics. In what ways, if any, does this influence your storytelling?

It doesn’t really influence me in a direct way—as you might imagine, there’s not much call for tensor mathematics in children’s adventures. But I do think studying physics shaped the way I learned to write.

Like most authors, I learned quite a bit from books on writing, critiques from other writers, and so on. But what ended up being most valuable for me was looking at stories the way a physicist looks at an equation or a theory: break the problem down, analyze its components. When I was trying to learn about pacing, for example, I looked for books with great pacing, and broke them apart like I was reading a textbook. Why is this book effective? What are the basic elements of the craft, and how were they put together? Which of these might fit my own style? And the answers to questions like that shaped me as a writer.

That process had become so ingrained, I wasn’t even aware I was doing it; it was a publisher of mine who first pointed out I had an unusually scientific approach. I’d never really thought of it that way before, but of course he was right.

That scientific approach also adds a unique element of worldbuilding to your stories. For example, I love that the recipes and remedies in THE BLACKTHORN KEY were actually used. What kind of research did you conduct to learn these recipes, and in what ways do you feel they enhance the story and its puzzles?

Lots of research in and out of libraries, mostly, plus videos online of how to make certain things. (I already knew the formula for the smoke bomb. Don’t ask.) There’s a world of information out there, incredibly fascinating, describing in detail the recipes and ingredients they used. Who knew you could make gunpowder from pigeon poop? Apothecaries, apparently.

I think these kinds of things bring a lot of fun to the story, and put a different sort of twist on this type of tale. Christopher isn’t your typical adventure hero in the sense that physically, he’s just an ordinary 14-year-old, without any particular training or skill in fighting. So if he’s going to win, he’ll have to use his wits—and his master’s recipes—to outthink, outplot, and outmaneuver the villains in the story. And to do it in interesting ways.

And that's another reason it's so easy to root for him. At BEA 2015, you were on your first panel. Can you describe what that was like, and what you learned from it?

It was pretty wild. I was on the stage, thinking okay, that’s David Baldacci on my right...and Maggie Stiefvater on my left...and there’s Jackson Pearce...and oh, it’s David Levithan asking the questions. And I’m like, really? I’m here now? Okay, then.

But it was incredibly fun. We all had a great time, and if there’s one thing I learned it’s how nice and down-to-earth fellow authors are.

They most certainly are. What's next for you? A book project? Something else? 

More novels! I’ve got a new series, a space adventure, that I’m working on, and I’ve just begun to start research for Blackthorn Key #3. Sorry—no spoilers!

Darn! Well, while we look forward to #3, there's plenty of time to read the first two:

Buy: BookPassage ~ Barnes & Noble ~  IndieBound

Buy: BookPassage ~ Barnes & Noble ~  IndieBound

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